What We Lose When We Lose Thomas Jefferson
New York City takes down the author of the Declaration of Independence.
After years of debate and a unanimous decision by New York City officials, the statue of Thomas Jefferson that has stood in the City Council chamber since 1915 is on its way out. Banished from official display, the seven-foot likeness will find its new home, likely in the New York Historical Society, by the end of the year.
The removal is disgraceful. Unlike monuments to Confederate leaders that display them in full military glory, Jefferson is depicted as a writer. Holding a quill pen in one hand and the Declaration of Independence in the other, he is clearly being honored for composing an immortal argument for liberty and equality. That is the accomplishment that the Council’s Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus, in a 2019 letter, called “the disgusting and racist basis on which America was founded.”
It is a fact known to all Americans that Jefferson didn’t live up to his own words. He owned more than 600 people over the course of his life. Unlike George Washington, moreover, he did not take even halting steps toward manumission. It’s little comfort that Jefferson recognized his own hypocrisy. “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath?” Jefferson asked in his Notes on the State of Virginia. “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever.”
The removal of the statue isn’t just an attack on Jefferson, though. As Princeton historian Sean Wilentz put it: “The New York City Council hearing on Monday to remove a statue honoring Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence — a serious blow, especially to the most vulnerable among us, for whom Jefferson’s cry of equality is the last best hope.”
Sidelining these historical figures — however problematic they may be — also sidelines, or diminishes, the ideals they came to embody and the many Americans who feel a deep and abiding connection with them. That very much includes the man who commissioned the statue in the first place.
The plaster version removed from City Hall is a replica of the bronze original on display in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. The original was commissioned by the French sculptor David d’Angers in 1833 by Uriah P. Levy, a Jewish naval officer who suffered from antisemitism in his military career. He faced six courts-martial, mostly for fighting duels provoked by slurs against his religion. He was also twice dismissed from the service, only to be reinstated by presidential order. A proud and patriotic man, Levy’s intention was to honor Jefferson as “one of the greatest men in history — author of the Declaration of Independence and an absolute democrat.” He especially appreciated Jefferson’s efforts “to mold our Republic in a form in which a man’s religion does not make him ineligible for political or government life.”
Levy’s commitment to Jefferson’s legacy wasn’t limited to the statue. In 1836, Levy purchased Jefferson’s Monticello estate, which had fallen into disrepair following the third president’s death in 1826, and devoted part of the fortune he accumulated as a real estate investor to restoring the house and grounds.
Like the man he commemorated, Uriah Levy was not unblemished. As a naval officer, Levy commanded a vessel deployed to the West Indies to suppress the slave trade. In the civil war, he supported the Union without reservation until his death, in 1862. Yet he purchased more than a dozen slaves to work on the restoration of Monticello (which was itself built and operated with slave labor). The entanglement of Jefferson’s accomplishments with his sins did not conclude at his death.
The question, though, is whether everyone implicated in slavery is ipso facto ineligible for public celebration. That standard doesn’t only exclude Jefferson but virtually every major figure in American history before 1861. And ruling these out of public discourse doesn’t only affect their personal memory. It also renders speechless the other Americans, like the Levy family, who’ve used their names, words, and careers as symbols to articulate their own aspirations for justice.
That’s why attacks on Columbus Day are as misplaced as removal of the Jefferson statue. The holiday and memorials in many cities aren’t really about the Genoese explorer who served a Spanish king. They are confirmations of the presence of Italian-Americans in public life, to say nothing of the courage and adventuresome spirit that led to the discovery of the New World.
The reduction of American history to an unbroken story of racial oppression comes at particular cost to Jews. Because we have been among the greatest beneficiaries of liberal institutions, we are unavoidably targets when those institutions abandon or reject their liberal mission. A widely despised and persecuted people who thrived in America like nowhere else, Jews do not fit into the sharp distinction between oppressor and oppressed that characterized ideological “antiracism.” Therefore, Jewish experiences must either be ignored or reduced to a monolithic conception of white supremacy.
It’s no coincidence that former Council member (now Assemblyman) Charles Barron, who began the campaign to remove the Jefferson statue twenty years ago, is among the most antisemitic figures in city politics. An ally of the New Black Panther Party, Barron has asserted that the “real” Semites are black and accused Israel of “genocide.” Even if he’s not targeting Levy specifically, Barron is an undisguised enemy of the pluralistic patriotism that Jefferson articulated and Levy did so much to promote. Barron doesn’t want the statue moved, “contextualized” or supplemented by other likenesses. He wants it destroyed.
The question for Assemblyman Barron and everyone else who made removal of the statue their cause celèbre is: By destroying the statue, do you mean to attack the man or the symbol? Do you mean to attack his slave-holding, or his striving for a free and democratic republic? Sometimes, it’s hard to be sure.
Jefferson’s far from the first statue to fall, and it won’t be the last. But the plaster and bronze of which they’re composed isn’t the most important thing. What matters is the fate of the ideas in that Declaration in Jefferson’s hand. The ones that Lincoln described as “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times,” and “a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.” That’s what Uriah Levy saw in Jefferson and what we should continue to honor today.
Samuel Goldman is a national correspondent at The Week. He is also an associate professor of political science at George Washington University, where he is executive director of the John L. Loeb, Jr. Institute for Religious Freedom and director of the Politics & Values Program. His books include “God’s Country: Christian Zionism in America” and “After Nationalism.”
Follow him on Twitter @SWGoldman.